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Writing Networks for Social Justice

Interview —

Malea Powell on Story, Survivance & Constellating as Praxis

Malea Powell
Malea Powell is Chair and Associate Professor of the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Department at Michigan State University; she also serves as a faculty member in the American Indian Studies program. Her work in indigenous rhetoric continually challenges the status quo and urges us to consider how our activism, scholarship, and teaching impacts and emerges from our home communities.

This interview explores Malea's perspectives on story, decolonizing practices, and constellating knowledge, which moves beyond linear models of knowledge production and information sharing. We spoke with Malea over Google Hangouts in August 2017. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. - Liz & Don

Liz & Don: In "Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood's Story" (1999) and "Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing" (2002) you detail how the "legitimizing discourse of rhetoric and composition" represents a colonial discourse because it relies on staking a claim to supposedly virgin territory and defending that land grab. You also describe survivance as an approach that American Indians have used to survive and resist such discourses. Could you elaborate on what survivance means, and how it represents decolonizing practices?

Malea Powell: In that early work I say that I take the concept of survivance from Gerald Vizenor and his first big manifesto, Manifest Manners. Survivance is a really archaic word that means inheritance, but he takes it apart and says it's not just that native people survive, it's that we resist and persist. I think of survivance as using what you've been given by your community, your elders, and your ancestors to persist as a people or as a community and not to simply survive. For me, the persistence of indigenous practices is the decolonial part of it. When I wrote that article, I couldn't see this, but now after Standing Rock and the things that are going on with First Nations communities in Canada like Walking With Our Sisters, it's easier for many people to see how indigenous peoples engage in this dual practice of bringing the past forward while reinvigorating it for the future to stand as indigenous people despite all that discourse about our disappearances. That's what I find really fascinating right now: young native activists are engaging in this practice without feeling like they have to engage in that stereotypical "torn between worlds" discourse. This IS their world and they are like, "This is what we are here for. This is why we're lawyers. This is why we're doctors. This is why we're artists and scholars and teachers. This is why we're PR reps." Now, Dallas Goldtooth can go out and start a native production company that's going to report the news relevant to Native peoples. Every day, folks are taking advantage of the tools that are here now in order to continue particular kinds of cultural practices but also to simply make visible a wide range of indigenous presences. When I wrote that essay, I couldn't have imagined the kind of widespread presence that Native people now have across all kinds of social media. It wasn't even a way that I thought about the world. When a lot of people think about decolonization they think of a kind of purity of just shrugging off the entire West. It's not possible. We live in it. We buy groceries. We drive cars. The idea that you can bring sustaining ancestral cultural practices forward and adapt them to new tools and situations is significant. For me, that's decolonial because it upsets the whole point of colonization, which was to erase indigenous cultures in North America.

L&D: How might this shape how others think about their home communities?

MP: I think the idea that you have to connect to history gets carried forward. There are real consequences to not paying attention to history, and to how it gets carried forward. We've seen in the last week [with the white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville] some of those consequences of who tells the story of who "we" are, of how that story gets told, of not learning from history. Indigenous communities are trying very hard to carry those lessons forward—with both good and bad consequences—so the idea that you're not always making a brand new thing and you need to attend to all the members of the community even the ones that aren't physically present anymore is really important. You can see this in mainstream scholarly culture, for example, in the kinds of problems that third-wave feminists had where folks were calling them out saying, "You forgot those of us who started the movement, and when you pay attention to us, it's just to critique us because we weren't pure and perfect according to your standards now." That combination, attending to history and not needing purity, is something that communities need right now. The left needs that right now. As soon as somebody starts to say something genuine in any social-media forum, someone comes and corrects them. This isn't one upmanship. We're literally struggling for our collective survival here, so how can we do that in a way that's respectful but that also acknowledges that humans make mistakes, that learning is a process of making mistakes.

L&D: Absolutely, and that connects to our next question about how survivance might work as a tactic for activism and community engagement in the academy given the political climate that we're mired in right now, viz., the embattled tone surrounding criticisms and defenses of higher education.

MP: It feels more like a battle to me now in the community than it does in the academy. I don't think that's because the academy isn't also difficult but because what's happening in the world in general is so difficult that it's hard to take a look at it and not be horrified. Movements like Standing Rock, and what's happening now in Michigan with anti-line 5 protests start in an indigenous space on indigenous land from indigenous practices, but then they map out to communities that are also worried about the quality of air and water around them. They promote the idea that we are going to work together and be respectful, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is clean water. And clean water is important to ALL humans so we have to work together, struggle together, to protect the water. It's clear that colonization is bad for all of us—even though the 1% and the white supremacists don't believe that— so delinking from those colonial ways of thinking, or even being mindful of how your thinking is constrained by coloniality—both very difficult—still brings us a hundred miles down the road from where we started, I think.

L&D: The ideas about bringing the past forward and not getting caught up in purity move into our next question about how storytelling can function as a practice of survivance. In your scholarship, you make the case for storytelling as an integral part of scholarship that resists colonial practices. In English Studies storytelling often refers to things like narrative or in literature or literary devices. What do you mean by storytelling?

MP: I use the word story more than the word storytelling because I was raised in an academy where storytelling was something that happened in the folklore department or in anthropology—that idea that particular ways of representing knowledge were cute or folksy but not "real" knowledge. For me, that practice of story is about engaging in multilayered historical and experiential events that happen in a space or place and trying to represent them the best you can or representing them from your point of view but not in a way that implies nobody else's point of view matters. One of the things I do when students tell me they want to work on a story or work from story is to ask them read some mainstream narrative theory so that they understand how story differs from narrative theory. Narrative theory and literary theory tries to apply a framework to a set of practices rather than immersing oneself in those practices and telling something out of them. That's the difference. There are thousands of theories we can slap onto a set of experiences in a moment, but to dwell in those spaces and to hear, listen, and find a way to tell some of those stories is a different kind of practice. It is about engagement in a community.

In some ways, this kind of practice is just good methodology–to engage with participants' voices, but to also remember that those participants' voices are more important than yours. They're not just fodder for your theory. They ARE theory, and learning how to let them be theory is difficult. It is difficult to learn how to hear those stories, to let them be theory, and to learn to argue for them as theoretically significant in our discipline. There is significant knowledge engagement happening, epistemology and ontology happening in those communities whether they're indigenous or not—even in your neighborhood community. They have a history. They have a set of relationships. They have a relationship to space and place and institutions and to one another and to other communities, and that's where the theory should come from. It should bubble up from those relationships and not be laid over the experience so that someone can categorize it and move on. That complexity of relations and community is present even in written texts—we just have to learn to see it. For example, in my early career I was deeply irritated with the way that Western scholars were studying the texts written by Native folks and trying to categorize them using formal categories like autobiography. Nineteenth century Native writers were portrayed as constantly falling short of attaining "true" autobiography or, if their writing fit the form, then they weren't "real" Indians anymore. The category was used as a kind of purity measure that always wrote Native writers out of any kind of agency. And this made me extremely frustrated. I could see so much happening in those writings that wasn't being acknowledged or dealt with because the significance of story a critical scholarly practices wasn't allowed AS a scholarly approach. Story is a very immersive practice, and you can't possibly share all the stories you learn in any given instance, but some of them can be constellated together to make sense of the moment. Those structures can then be broken apart and constellated in some other way to help make sense of other moments. Because I wasn't producing THE reading that I wanted to elevate above all other readings, I was told again and again that this practice wasn't "scholarly" or "theoretical," only that it was anecdotal.

L&D: In your Chair's Address to the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication, "Stories Take Place: A Performance in One Act," you define story as "an event in which I try to hold some of the complex shimmering strands of a constellative, epistemological space long enough to share them with you" (384). How do stories relate to constellations?

MP: Constellation is the metaphor of practice that makes the most sense to me because it acknowledges that what we're doing is taking a set of things that exist and putting them together to make a story, to make knowledge. You can't pretend it's linear, that it's the right way or "logical" in Western terms. None of those Western measures work if what you're trying to think about is constellation or constellative practice because the randomness of the way you arrange those things to make the story, to make the picture that you see, is always omnipresent and always visible. You look at the stars, and if you were taught mainstream ways of thinking about stars, you can say, "There's the Big Dipper. There's the Milky Way." You can do that with indigenous practice: "There's the bear being pursued by three hunters." There are all sorts of ways to look at the stars and make meaning, but the scholarly practice of constellating erases the possibility that there is one linear narrative, that there is one logical explanation or a single change of events. Constellating highlights the impermanence, ambiguity, and subjectivity of making that story in that moment in a way that no other metaphor has done for me, so I like it because of that.

When you're trained as a historian in rhetoric, you get caught in all that linearity and all those logical connections, and then when you step out of Western history-making practices, it becomes clear that linearity is a fantasy, a colonial story. If you ask people who study history, "Is history a story?," they almost always say yes. The narratives about historical events are stories created in particular ways for particular purposes, but if we have been raised in Western culture or in Western school systems, we still often see history as chronological. Anyway, understanding how all those stories can layer onto each other, how they are related, the only thing I could think to do was constellate. I tried archaeology and genealogy. They work a little bit, but they're not as spatially commodious. That word was awful (laughing). There's just not enough space in them. There's not enough multidimensional possibility in those metaphors for me. Constellating is a hard practice, but it's not impossible, and a lot of folks are oriented towards it. If you've ever had to make stories about who you were in relation to the world because you don't fit with the story you're supposed to fit in, then you're already well on your way to being able to do this. If you've ever had to go in a particular kind of performative drag— middle-class drag, administrator drag, professor drag—you get it. If you've ever had to consciously and deliberately perform mainstream behaviors inside mainstream/whitestream roles, then you already know that any given story in any given moment is not the totality of either stories or moments.

L&D: Absolutely, and in "Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics" (2014), you work through the relationships among story, constellations, and epistemologies as emblematic of cultural rhetorics. It's a complicated piece with a number of scholars offering different perspectives about what cultural rhetorics means, so we don't want to reduce that here by asking you to define cultural rhetorics. Instead, we implore readers to check out that discussion. But, we'd like to talk about cultural rhetorics: could you tell us about how the Cultural Rhetorics Conference started?

MP: The first conference was in 2014 at Michigan State University. We tried to have one about five years earlier, and it just didn't happen. I couldn't figure out how to make the money work, and I couldn't figure out how to make the labor of it work, how to gather an academic collective. But we did end up hosting the Feminisms & Rhetorics Conference a year or so later, and that helped me learn basic ways to manage labor, money, and conferences in general.

The Cultural Rhetorics Conference arose out of a couple places. One, we have a concentration in cultural rhetorics here. When I came here, it was a highly underdeveloped concentration. This program was meant to be mostly a professional and technical writing PhD. Then, I got hired into this department that had a lot of American Studies scholars, so we didn't model it on Syracuse's program [in Composition and Cultural Rhetorics] as much as we modeled it on American Studies as an interdisciplinary field. We got to that point where things changed. We saw the kind of work that our students were doing and the kind of work that I and some of the other faculty were doing and how it was getting certain kinds of feedback from our professional journals that I found enraging, and we needed to do something about it. We were being told specifically and repeatedly that the kind of work that I do and the kind of work someone like Qwo-Li Driskill does or that Angela Haas does needed to appear in Native or Ethnic Studies journals because it wasn't part of the discipline [Comp/Rhet or Writing Studies]. We were also hearing things from African-American scholars, Latinx scholars, and queer scholars who were getting the same kind of feedback, "Go take this off, and then put it in a niche journal." From these conversations, I started to get the idea that all of us together were probably bigger than the group of folks who thought they comprised the mainstream of the discipline. It was a bigger community with more interesting ideas at the very least. That's part of the impetus for the conference.

The other part is the experience of consistently being pushed out of major professional conferences, which I interpreted for a long time as evil intent. From organizing the conference, I understand now that the kind of work it takes to actually center difference at a conference like the 4Cs is enormous, and most people don't have enough time to learn how to do it before they have to do it. After watching how people responded to that conference, I realized that there was a huge space for conferences that addressed the work of cultural rhetorics broadly and for a community of people who wanted to get together and talk about their work without having to justify it as part of the discipline. We did the first Cultural Rhetorics Conference and ran it basically hanging by my fingernails from the very high ledge of a very tall building, praying that the money would work out. I had been talking with the folks in the Coalition of Feminist Scholars about how to make the conference pay for itself without charging three hundred dollars a head and what that means in the long run, what things you can do and what things you can't do. We set the grad student registration at cost, and then we layered in faculty registration at a little more to pay for things like LCD projectors, coffee, that kind of stuff. It turned out really well. We had about 200 people at the first conference, and they had a really good time had meaningful engagements with one another. Then, we crowdsourced: we had a big meeting at the end of the conference, and I asked, "what do you want; what do you need; what can we do?" Folks wanted an organization, and they wanted the organization primarily to keep running the conference and to create a publishing place for the work that was getting rejected on a regular basis. At about the same time, a couple of Comp/Rhet journals folded or quit accepting submissions. So I decided that on top of all my other career obligations, I would find a way to do what a group of us had been talking about for years—start a conference and a publishing space for those of us consistently represented as on the margins of the discipline. And then I pitched this idea to that group of people—mostly senior scholars who were of color or queer or did disability studies work. I convinced them that we were the right people to make this set of spaces that people needed—we were tenured, many of us full professors, in the academy we're relatively privileged. I argued that we couldn't expect brand new assistant professors to do this work. That we had to do this work. They agreed and we've been slowly working away at pieces of it since then. The hardest part is getting nonprofit tax status for the organization. We need bylaws and leadership structures and financial accountability mechanisms and liability insurance to get that—building those infrastructures and learning strategic ways to file that paperwork is killing me right now.

So, we ran the conference again at Michigan State in 2016. We expected to not run it a third time at MSU, but it wasn't easy finding senior folks who could move it someplace else in the very short time-frame we ended up with. So, we'll host it for a third time in 2018. My hope is that it moves somewhere else for 2020—we've talked about Houston as a possibility. Maybe it can settle into some place for two years in a row, so it's not reinvention every time. But having significant support for running the conference from tenured colleagues in any location is one of the bedrock requirements. A lot of the brand new stuff that has started in the discipline in the past five years has been on the backs of assistant professors, and for me that's not good sustainable practice given the degree to which running conferences and starting journals isn't recognized or rewarded in institutional merit and promotion review. When Alex [Hidalgo] and Andrea [Riley Mukavetz] took point on the conference in 2016, it worried me even though they had some support from Raul [Sanchez] and Terese [Guinsatao Monberg]. We'd never tried the multiple conference directors in offsite locations model before, and I wasn't sure it would work. We learned some things from that model. So for 2018, we're arranging something more geographically proximate again with Gwen [Pough], Andrea, and I as co-directors. I guess what I'm trying to say is that one of my own core principles is making sure that newer/young folks who want to take on leadership roles get real support and mentorship from senior folks. If more experienced scholars don't want to take responsibility for supporting future generations of scholars, then we have a problem. For example when we were putting the constellations board together, we knew that for it to get credibility and for publishing there to count for promotion and tenure, we needed an editorial board with some experienced, well-known, senior scholars on it as well as an editorial review board that was broadly representative of a range of experiences, identities, and scholarly and pedagogical expertise. Do I like this whole junior/senior divide thing? Not really. But it IS how academic institutions work right now, and I don't want anything we're doing to endanger scholars who are the most at risk inside those institutions.

The Cultural Rhetorics Conference was born out of need and desire. When it's not needed or desired, then it probably won't continue. I don't actually know what will happen to it, but we sure stirred up a lot of people's anxieties at the 2016 conference, which was an extremely successful conference. We had about 400 people attend, so we just about doubled our participants. The sessions were great. People had a great time with one another. There were some odd social-media conversations that served as an intrusion into the conference from folks who weren't there–or who were messaging with folks who were there, but who were making assumptions and claims about what was happening. Those claims got all this social-media hype that I now find completely fascinating from the distance of nearly a year because none of their representations align with what actually happened at the conference. Those interpretations came from what they thought we did. Their assumptions–based in their knowledge about what THEY would do–led them to feel threatened or worried in some way or the other. When a group of mainstream scholars feels this level of threat from scholars of color, queer women, disability studies scholars, this tells me we're on to something important, that there's a need for our work. I mean, wow, if we make mainstream scholars nervous just by standing up and critiquing their published work, whoa, there's something significant going on here. For me, the reactions CR-CON2016 got on social media is a cautionary tale about what happens in our discipline when we pretend that scholarship is disconnected from community and culture and race and gender and ethnicity and ability and all those things. When we pretend that scholarship is just something interesting that lives in an ivory tower, and we can engage in it, and it doesn't hurt anybody, then ultimately, we open ourselves to really intense critique.

L&D: That idea that the expectations of scholars and scholarship are changing leads into questions about the Constellations publishing space: when you say "publishing space" what do you mean; and how do you envision Constellations being different than other places where scholars publish and what sort of challenges have you faced with it?

MP: We're facing challenges all the time. For instance, we've written a half-dozen grants to support the work of the publishing space, so that's challenging. We ended up calling it a publishing space because it needed to be more than a journal. We wanted to be able to publish short monographs, zines, films, and multimedia, as well as things that look exactly like an alphabetic, print article. That's the idea of calling it a publishing space— with some aspirations that it might be more than a gallery for finished products some day. We might get enough funding to create support and development spaces where someone who doesn't have mad multimedia skills but has a vision could make a proposal, and we could work with that. But, we are years away from that. The money is the hard part. Right now it is funded through my digital publishing research lab here at MSU, and that's not a stable model. Figuring out what a stable model looks like is one of the challenges—where does the money come from to support an open source publishing space without charging folks a bunch of money to be members of the organization sponsoring it?

The other challenge is that a lot of the folks who bring us work have incredibly good ideas and are trying very hard to engage with those ideas in new and innovative ways but haven't found a lot of support or mentoring in doing that, either in the grad programs where they studied or in the departments/institutions where they work. So a good deal of what we really want to publish needs to be mentored through revision. Since our review process (double-blind, of course) is focused on finding innovative and transformative work, we see the process of mentoring through revision to publication as part of our collective community practice. This happens in a lot of journals, I think, under the covers (so to speak) as part of general editorial review. But we see this as an important feature of cultural rhetorics practice, and we want to bring it out of the closet and make it visible as real work for those of us who mentor as well. So when we publish a piece, and we're hoping to get our first pieces out this fall, it will have authors or makers, of course, but it will also have credits that include the mentors or editors who worked on that piece. In other words, if you review for constellations, mentor someone, provide technical advice or textual support, then you're listed in the credits, and at the end of the year you'll get a list of things you did for us. That's a concrete way we can make your labor visible across the discipline and in your institution.

Other venues in the field have adopted this process of acknowledging that work. But it's only visible to people in your department, not to the discipline. For example, I've mentored people through publication in 3Cs [College Composition and Communication] and in RSQ [Rhetoric Society Quarterly], but none of that work is visible beyond the editorial team. I was talking about this at a conference and an older colleague said to me, "You know that's just collegial behavior." My response was that since some people are asked to engage in it much more than other people, and some people don't engage in it at all, it's important to make that labor visible. But for us, it's a central part of a collective, relational practice. Alex [Hidalgo] and Phil [Bratta] and I have spent an inordinate amount of time together figuring out what it means to practice publication in a collective way. We've done a couple of presentations about collective practice and visiblizing labor at a couple of different conferences, trying to find the best audience for that work. And maybe, in the end, the publishing space won't be able to maintain the level of collective intensity that we currently have, and that's ok. We'll transition to what supports and sustains the work for the long haul.

A lot of the challenges of constellations are all the normal challenges of getting a publication off the ground, plus the challenges of trying to do it in a way that honors the types of methodologies that we argue for in the fields that comprise cultural rhetorics.

L&D: With considerations for how to change aspects of the field to make it pay attention to and not disregard people's work, we want to end with a question that has emerged from our interviews and putting this zine together: how do you define activism?

MP: For me, activism is intentional, being willing to engage with and stand up for equity and justice, being willing to either risk whatever privilege you have or to use it to make things better, less oppressive, more equitable. When I was younger I thought activism meant going out in the streets, carrying signs and yelling, or standing on a soapbox and simply denouncing oppression or boycotting companies and events I thought were unfair, inequitable, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist. I thought activism was about fiery passion for a cause. Now I know that activism, real sustainable change, is a long road. A long set of roads. Some of those roads are those visible, passionate, in your face kind of actions. But some of them aren't. Some of them are quiet, deliberate, persistent moves that make oppressive spaces rather less oppressive, that slowly transform institutions, that creatively build coalition. Some of those roads travel right through the belly of the beast.

All of those roads are important if we really want to delink from colonial practices and create sustainable equity. Some of those roads are easy to walk, some are hard, and sometimes a lot of us end up fighting amongst ourselves, fighting against ourselves, in order to claim that the particular road we're on is the one true very best road. That's the trick of colonialism—turning us against one another. For me, the hardest part of activism is doing it together for the good of our collective future—what Native elders would see as the next seven generations–instead of doing what might benefit a specific person in a specific moment. As an activist in the academy, I try really hard to think about, and work towards, that collective future. I'm not always very good at it, but it's the goal that gets me up in the morning and carries me through each day of work–that some small thing we're doing right now will create more space, more justice, more equity, more possibility for folks who come after us.